Driving Guide for Foreigners

Many tourists who go to Spain will want to rent a car and drive around in Spain. There are rental agencies like Hertz Thrifty and Avis Firefly, or Miami Car Hire which have quite a few locations in the city and airport. Here are a few practical things they should know before they rent a car.

1. The Spanish drive on the right side of the road.

2. International Driving Permit Information:  The web page of the American Embassy in Spain says that an American needs to have the international driving permit and a driving license from his state to drive in Spain. Recently (July, 2013) an American from California who did not have the international driving permit was fined 250 euros.

It is advisable to bring one’s passport when one is driving, or a reproduction of the page which has the owner’s picture. If you hold an EU driving licence, you do not need an International Driving Permit.  You should still have your passport though, the Guardia Civil will ask you for it if they stop you.

3. If your insurance company does not cover your insurance while driving in Spain, it is advisable to buy insurance at the rental car company. Check with your insurance company before you come to Spain.

4. There are many roundabouts (rotondas or glorietas in Spanish) in Spain. The driver who is already in the roundabout has the right of way, unless there are traffic lights at the roundabout that govern the flow of traffic. Before you leave the roundabout, you should turn your right turn signal indicator to indicate that you are leaving the roundabout. That is the law in Spain. However you must also give way to drivers in the right-hand lane in the roundabout, so beware that the car in the right lane does not continue to circulate the roundabout which could block your exit from the left lane, ensure you change to the right-hand lane before attempting to exit a large roundabout or you could be forced to continue circulating it as well and end up doing a complete circuit. 

5. There are few left turn arrow lights in Spain. To turn left, one should drive on the right side of the road until one comes to a roundabout with traffic lights that allow one to cross the street.

6. The pedestrian crossings are marked with zebra black and white wide striped lines. If there is no traffic light at the crossing, the pedestrian has the right of way and one should stop to allow the pedestrian to cross. If one is a pedestrian, be aware that even if you have the right of way, there are many motorists who may not stop, so be very careful in crossing any street. If you are a motorist, be aware that many pedestrians do not like to follow rules. Always expect the unexpected. In cities many pedestrians are run over, and most of the time it is their fault, for not crossing the street at pedestrian crossings.

7. Spanish motorists are very aggressive drivers. Use the left fast lane on motorways only if you are going fast or overtaking another car. Otherwise, use the right or middle lane. Even if you are going at the speed limit, there are kamikaze drivers who will want to overtake you and will be riding your bumper and blowing their horns and flashing their lights to tell you that they want to overtake. The Guardia Civil has clocked one driver at 280 kph!

8. The legal age for driving is 18 years.

9. Do not use a cell phone while driving because it is against the law, unless it is a hands-off phone. The Guardia Civil has fined many motorists for using their cell phones.

10. Everyone in the car has to use their seatbelt. This includes people on the back seats. The driver will be fined if one of the passengers is not using his safety belt.

11. Children who are under 12 years of age cannot use the front seats, unless they measure 120 cm tall.

12. One cannot use headphones connected to a sound device while driving.

13. Radar detectors are not permitted.

14. Pets must be restrained in a moving car.

15. Spain has high accident rates, so the authorities have become extremely strict on the use of alcohol, which is one of the biggest causes of accidents. The blood alcohol limit is 0.5 gram/liter (0.25 mg/liter for the alcoholmeter), which usually translates to one glass of wine or beer. Be aware that in the early morning hours, the Guardia Civil has roadblocks in many places and will force every driver to take the breath test. If you are going to drink, do not drive. You may be jailed depending on your alcohol level. You may also be jailed if you refuse to take the breath test, depending on how the Guardia Civil thinks about your physical state.

16. Headlights must always be used in tunnels. There will be a sign before the tunnel alerting you to put on your lights. There will be another sign after the tunnel to alert you to turn off your lights.

17. If you are involved in an accident, you have to help the injured party. If you come upon an accident, it is also your duty to help anyone injured. Call the police as soon as possible.

18. The speed limit on the autopista or autovia (motorway) is 120 kph. [As of early 2011, the Spanish national speed limit is now 110kph on all autopistas and autovias.  This is supposedly a temporary measure to reduce fuel consumption.] The speed limit on main roads (carreteras) is 90 kph. Secondary roads and rural roads will have their speed limits posted. All urban roads have a 50 kph speed limit, unless overidden with another speed limit.

19. A toll road is called an autopista de peaje. If you see the word “peaje”, that means it is a toll road.

20. Parking in identified blue zones is allowed. However there is a ticket machine where one has to put coins for parking fees. One gets a parking ticket for the time one wants and then puts this ticket on the dashboard of the car so that the authorities know that one has paid, otherwise one can get a parking ticket. It has been found that many of these parking places are more expensive than the municipal underground car parks.

21. Do not park where the sidewalk border is painted yellow or red.

22. Every car has to have reflective jackets for the driver and orange reflective triangles in case of a car breakdown. Put on the reflective jacket and set up the triangle to notify motorists that your car is stopped. You have to put the reflective jacket before you leave the car.

23. Some parts of the country are notorious because the natives may not follow the rules. This is the case in Andalusia. Motorcycle riders in Andalusia do not follow rules and will go through red lights. Be aware that this can happen. There may be a surprise, so drive defensively. Also motorists will try to beat the red light and will speed up when the light changes. Allow a few seconds before you cross the street if you are a pedestrian. If you do not go ahead right away when you get a green light, in Andalusia it is considered good manners to give you one second to move your car before the driver at your back starts honking his horn!

24. If you are driving in unfamiliar roads, go to Via Michelin on the web and print out the map of the area you will be driving on. This guide is especially good for directions entering cities, which may be difficult or confusing to foreign drivers.

25. Parking is limited in city centers and one will probably not find any free parking. The best thing to do is to know where the municipal underground parking lots are before you drive to the city. Look at the web page of the city (ayuntamiento) and they may have information on parking. Parking in garages costs between 25 and 30 euros a day. Hotels charge about 12 euros a day for parking.

26. Passing on the right (the inside lane) is illegal. Do not overtake if there is a solid white line dividing the traffic lanes. If the solid white line becomes a striped white line, then you can overtake.

27. On two lane roads, it is safer to put on your headlights to make your car more visible. Sometimes there will be slow moving trucks or cars on these narrow two lane roads, but do not overtake unless you know it is safe. Expect cars behind you to break the rules and try to overtake. Spanish drivers are notorious for not being patient.

28. Non-residents who are caught in a driving infraction by the Guardia Civil may have to pay the fine immediately. The authorities are afraid that these people may not pay, so they want their money up front.

29. There are 4 rush hour periods during the day in cities:

08:00-09:30 h

12:30-14:30 h

15:30-17:00 h

18:30-20:30 h

30. There are frequent radar traps. Near cities, the Guardia Civil also uses helicopters to look for speeders. the radar traps are frequently found on the motorway just outside the cities. This is a great way for the government to get a lot of money. The Spanish complain about this all the time.

31. Spanish roads are notorious for not having many signs announcing coming shopping malls or tourist attractions. Be aware of this. Many signs are hard to understand, even for Spanish drivers. Sometimes one will come to a crossing with so many signs that one gets confused as to where to go. Do not be afraid to ask pedestrians for help and directions. The Spanish always like to help foreigners.

32. At street side parking in many cities, there are called “gorillas”, men who ask you for a contribution to watch your car. This is against the law, but if you do not give them something, something bad may happen to your car. Keep small change in your car for this.

33. Most autopistas (motorways or freeways) are quite good, especially the newer ones, so foreigners will have an easy time driving on them. Narrow city streets are another thing. Be aware that many small towns have extremely narrow streets.

34. In big cities it is advisable not to leave your car parked overnight on the street because there may be break-ins. It is better to choose hotels with secure underground parking. Many hotels charge about 11 or 12 euros a night for parking. Municipal parking lots charge at least 22 euros a day.

35. Drivers who wear eyeglasses are required to keep a spare set of glasses in the car. If one is stopped by authorities, one can plead innocence because one is a foreigner and does not know of this requirement. Most of the time they will let one go.

36. Some motorcycle riders will overtake on the right lane, when the law says that overtaking can take place only on the left lane. Be aware of this. Leave plenty of space between your car and the motorcycle, because if an accident happens and it is the fault of the motorcycle driver, you still lose because you will lose plenty of time with the police and the guardia civil. At red stop lights, while you are waiting for the light to change, you may be surrounded by motorcycle riders. Let them go ahead when the light changes to green.

37. The law was changed in 2008. People who drive without a valid license may go to jail! Please be aware about this new law.

38. Driving on the autopistas and autovias is easy, comparable to freeways in the U.S. It is secondary roads that need more attention from the driver, because this is where most accidents occur.

39. If you arrive at a road junction without any yield sign, the driver on the right has the right of way.

40. Do not be discouraged by this driving guide. It is intended to tell you all the rules before you drive in Spain. Driving a car still allows one to have the independence to go where one wants to go and to stop at whatever place one wants to stop at.

41. The most humorous thing that one can find while driving in Spain is arriving at a very small town and one arrives at a junction. One wants to go to Point A. One sign will direct the driver to go on the left lane, while another sign will direct the driver to go the right lane. Choose the right lane and if you do not reach Point A in a reasonable time, turn around and go back to the junction and choose the other road!

42. About 5% of traffic violations are committed by foreigners, since there are so many foreigners who visit Spain. Most of the traffic violations are for speeding. If you are a foreigner and the Guardia Civil stops your car for speeding, the procedure is that you have to pay the fine immediately, since Trafico thinks that you will skip the country without paying and they want their money, since this is a very lucrative income for the national government. The fine depends on how much over the speed limit you were caught at. If you cannot pay the fine, the Guardia Civil may impound your car. If you are stopped for the breath test and you fail it, the fine may range from 400 to 600 euros, depending on how much alcohol the test detects. If there is no other sober passenger in the car who can drive, the Guardia Civil will insist that you continue parking on the side of the road until the alcohol leaves your body and you can pass the breath test. My advice is to bring cash (about 400 euros) with you in case you have to pay the fine immediately. I do not know at this time if the Guardia Civil will accept a credit card for the fine.

43. When you go home you may receive a speeding ticket. The ticket is usually a result of a radar trap where a picture of the car and the speed it was going has been recorded. The hire company may charge a fee for having processed the police request for driver information. A new system is now in place to enforce payments. The fines and any non payment are recorded against passport computer records and that could place non payers in danger of arrest and/or prosecution should they later return to Spain. Within the EU moves are underway to enforce enfringements in other member countries courts. Some car hire companies also keep records to prevent you using them again, or put up the insurance by huge amounts. So if you ever intend to go back to Spain or to hire a car again, anywhere in the world, you need to deal with this. You should pay the fine. Tickets can be pay using the following its the http://www.dgt.es/portal/ (Traffic Department) then click on 'Pago de multas en internet' (Pay fines on-line), then under 'information' again click 'Pago de multas en internet' (Pay fines on line) then in the box that opens up click 'Pago de multas (sin certificado digital ni DNIe) ' This takes you to a page for making payments by credit card, with or without a Spanish DNIe number (Spanish fiscal number).   choose 'Passport' , from a drop down, to change the identification details to use passport number instead of DNIe, so that a non Spanish person can use the system for making payments the page is in English.Having completed this form it shows all fines registered against your passport (FOR THIS REASON ALONE YOU CAN ASSUME YOU WOULD HAVE PROBLEMS AT BORDER CONTROL IF YOU CHOOSE TO IGNORE THE NOTICE AND RETURN TO THE COUNTRY!) Payment details are then easy to enter and the screen quickly produces receipt numbers and a notification of payment for your records 'JUSTIFICANTE DE PAGO DE SANCION'. If you dispute the details of the ticket you can ask for a court hearing to decide the matter but must return to Spain for that hearing.

44. Most cars in Spain have manual drive. If you want to rent a car with automatic drive, you will have to reserve at your car rental agency ahead of time and you will find that they will charge you more for that car.

45. Be sure to get a rental car with a GPS. This makes travel easy, especially entering bigger cities. 

46. Be sure to read all the rules and conditions beforehand Some car rental companies do not permit their vehicles to travel to Gibraltar from Spain, other countries may be prohibited as well. As Gibraltar is close to Malaga and the Costa Del Sol, some may have an issue with this. Some car rental companies do not permit one way rentals in Spain and will also charge a surcharge for pick up or drop off at a Rail Station. 

Finding Parking

If you are unfamiliar with driving in a foreign country, planning ahead and knowing where to park ahead of time will help cut down on any additional confusion while driving.  Instead of driving around looking for parking and getting lost or comitting an accidental traffic violation, direct yourself to places to park that are nearby your desired destination. 

Online: You can find parking online by searching on this map for  Malaga Parking.  Enter the duration of time you will be parking for in the "Compare Rates" box on the left and current prices will be calculated and shown for each parking structure.  Click on the bubbles to get more information on any of the parking lots (rates, hours of operation, payment options, etc.).

Smartphone Apps: You can also find parking using your smartphone by downloading one of the several available parking apps for Smartphones.